Is Anyone Listening to What Ordinary Africans Think?

December 03, 2013

“Too often, donors’ decisions are driven more by our own political interests or our policy preferences than by our partners’ needs.”

These charged words did not come from an energetic NGO arguing for major changes to US development policy.  They were delivered by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a high-level gathering of development officials in late 2011.  Whether she realized it or not, they also gave voice to the seeming disconnect between what ordinary Africans raise as their most pressing problems and where the US government is focusing its scarce development dollars.

Conventional public wisdom would suggest that Africans are most worried about the catastrophic AIDS epidemic, high child mortality, recurrent food shortages, and civil conflict.  Everyone has seen the startling statistics on HIV prevalence rates, the number of children that die of preventable diseases, or heard the repeated calls for emergency food relief.  Therefore, it’s only natural to fight for ever increasing US taxpayer treasure to vanquish these demons.

But, what do ordinary Africans actually think?  Do they raise these same issues as the most pressing problems affecting their nations?  This is the subject of my new CGD paper.  Based upon Afrobarometer public attitude surveys, Africans appear overwhelmingly concerned about four interrelated issues: (1) jobs and income; (2) infrastructure; (3) enabling economic and financial policies; and (4) inequality.  Since 2002, these issues have steadily accounted for roughly 70 percent of survey responses.  Infrastructure-related concerns – such as power, roads, and water – have witnessed the largest increase during this time.  Across the continent, roughly one-in-five respondents now raise it as their most pressing concern.  All of these trends hold across rural/urban, gender, and other demographic lines – despite some modest and expected differences.

But, what about those issues that we would expect to see – such as health, education, and insecurity?  Startlingly, they have accounted for only 15 percent or so of survey responses.  At the regional level, Africans have consistently failed to cite health and education as a top tier problem at any point over the last decade. Granted, there are individual countries – such as Botswana, Ghana, or Mozambique – where people do raise them as a top-tier problem.  But, across most of the region, including many of the countries hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic, they simply don’t rise to the very top of the list.  And they never have.

Most Pressing Problems in Sub-Saharan Africa, 2002-2012

In no way should this suggest that acute health needs are not important.  Or that most Africans do not value education as a path to prosperity.  Or that insecurity is not a binding constraint on people’s prospects.  We all know that there are clear and important limits to how much public attitude surveys can really tell us.  But what these surveys are likely telling us is that the common caricatures about what Africans want the most (or need the most) does not necessarily fit with what ordinary Africans actually say when given the chance. 

The big question, then, is how does the alignment of US development assistance look through this adjusted lens?  Does it resemble the misaligned paradigm that Hillary Clinton mentioned two years ago?  Like all things, the answer is nuanced and setting specific.  But, there are some general takeaways that demand thoughtful reflection. 

At the regional level, only 16 percent of U.S. assistance has been focused on what Africans cite as the most pressing national problems – such as generating income opportunities or improving infrastructure.  On the other end, over two-thirds of U.S. assistance commitments over the last decade have been targeted towards what Africans consistently cite as lower-level concerns (health, education, security, and governance). 

This contrast becomes even more striking at the country level.  The percentage of US development commitments aligned with what Africans have cited as the three biggest problems has exceeded 50 percent in only two African countries over the last decade.  In Burkina Faso, the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s $481 million compact – which focused largely on infrastructure (the most pressing concern for Burkinabe people) – has driven this trend.  In Botswana, large PEPFAR programs focused on the health sector (the third most cited concern) explain the close alignment.

However, the alignment picture in most countries looks less like Burkina Faso or Botswana and much more like Kenya.  This east African nation has received roughly $5 billion in US development commitments over the last decade.  During this time, Kenyans have repeatedly cited the same three national problems – the lack of jobs, inadequate infrastructure, and unfriendly economic conditions.  So, how much of US development spending has focused on these issues?  Only 6 percent.  A shockingly small share.  Instead, over three-quarters of US assistance has focused on issues that have never or only intermittently breached the top 5 of Kenyans’ concerns, such as health- and food security-related concerns.  Other major recipients of US assistance – like Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia – paint a very similar picture.

Kenya: Alignment of US Commitments With Most Pressing National Problems

All of this may suggest a surprisingly stark mismatch between what America is doing in Africa and what ordinary Africans care the most about. 

Invariably, some people might question the relevance of public attitude surveys for determining programmatic priorities.  As one of my colleagues harshly notes – ‘you can’t poll the dead’.  Nor can you reliably poll young children.  If you could, then they would probably say that health and education should be the top priority after all.  These are very fair points.

Nonetheless, US policymakers and advocates need to fight the ingrained urge to casually explain away what Africans seem to be saying.  With that, development agencies should take more concerted steps to systematically incorporate ground-level input.  If some policymakers do not prefer Afrobarometer’s reputable surveys, which are coincidentally supported by USAID funding, then they should ask their own open-ended questions about people’s priorities through a representative and statistically significant survey.

In the meantime, Americans might need to internalize that the overwhelming majority of Africans are likely most concerned about kitchen table issues.  The things that dictate whether they have enough money to pay for school uniforms, health clinic visits, adequate food for the family, or to start a new business venture.  But, that should not be such a huge leap.  Because it’s pretty similar to what keeps many Americans up at night as well.

If policymakers make this leap, then what?  Would it imply a wholesale restructuring of existing US development priorities in Africa?  Some might argue so, but that’s probably not a practical course of action.  And, the Obama Administration is starting to head in this direction already with two new signature initiatives – Power Africa and the New Alliance for Food Security.  As such, a more pragmatic approach could be for the US government to elevate a number of under-utilized development tools, such as:

  1. Better leveraging the MCC – which is the only U.S. institution with an explicit mandate to support country-based priorities;
  2. Unleashing the full potential of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation – arguably the best kept secret in the US government’s development toolkit;
  3. Expanding USAID’s economic growth and trade programs, like its Development Credit Authority facility; and
  4. Increasing financial support for the African Development Bank – whose investments are strongly aligned with ordinary Africans’ most pressing concerns.

I plan to unpack these issues through a number of future Rethink blogs.  This will also include an assessment of what the alignment picture looks like in Latin America.  So watch this space.  Also, please take a look at the CGD working paper, which includes more detail on the analysis and methodological issues.  In the meantime, I warmly welcome your thoughts and reactions.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.